NZ'S BIG DAY: VIRUS LEVELS, QUAKES AND TSUMANI WARNINGS
• One of NZ's most eventful days started at 2.27am, with a 7.1 quake off the east coast
• It was widely felt, including by the Prime Minister - 'Bugger it'
• Another two major Pacific quakes followed, the second of which triggered tsunami warnings for large parts of NZ's coast
• Thousands of people were evacuated from homes, schools and workplaces
• They could return at 1.25pm after the largest waves had passed; by 3.45pm, the tsunami threat was lifted
• At 4pm, the PM announced new Covid alert-level changes from 6am this Sunday
Auckland will move out of lockdown and drop to alert level 2 from Sunday. The rest of the country will move to level 1.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the alert-level changes after five days of no cases of community transmission.
The decision came after an eventful day in New Zealand, with three major earthquakes in the Pacific, numerous tsunami warnings that were eventually lifted, and the Cabinet meeting to determine Covid alert levels.
"Bugger it," said Ardern, when asked how she felt dealing with a pandemic and the 7.1 earthquake that struck off the North Island's east coast at 2.27am on Friday.
Ardern, like thousands of New Zealanders, felt the quake. She texted Emergency Management Minister Kiri Allan at 2.29am.
"Bugger it, pretty much what everyone else thought at that time, but as the minister has said - we are the Shaky Isles," Ardern said at today's 4pm standup when asked about her reaction to the quake.
Allan added, laughing: "She sent me a text message to make sure I was going to be doing my job."
Auckland will move to level 2 at 6am on Sunday. It is likely to remain there for five days, after which Cabinet will review whether it can move to level 1 at the start of the following weekend.
There had been no new cases for five days in a row which was "good news", Ardern said.
"It is still not business as usual," the PM added, urging people to keep social distancing.
The restriction of 100 people at gatherings would be applied to church services in Auckland at level 2 this Sunday morning, Ardern said.
"An elimination strategy can still feel like hard work ... thank you for pushing through," Ardern said.
She said even if new community cases arose next week, that would not necessarily mean Auckland could not move down to level 1 at week's end.
It would very much "depend on the context," she said.
"If we're seeing them [community cases] with identified contacts of people we're already asking to be in isolation, that would not necessarily stand in the way of a change in alert level."
Director general of health Dr Ashley Bloomfield said as the country moved down alert levels, some people would have to stay in isolation.
Bloomfield said under a new Section 70 order, any person who attended City Fitness Hunters Plaza - on February 20 between 11.15am and 1.45pm, or February 26 between 3.25pm and 4.30pm - as well as anyone who is a close, close-plus or casual contact, was required to:
• Isolate at their usual home.
• Report for testing at a specified time.
• Accept testing and isolate until they were told officially they no longer needed to.
Ardern said there were still 10 people for whom the Ministry of Health did not have results from the original City Fitness location of interest.
Eight of these people had a test. Two hadn't but those are from a visit on February 20, before the Covid-positive gym member became symptomatic.
Ardern said officials were still trying hard to find the pair. Bloomfield said: "They will be found".
Bloomfield said he was "confident" people would do what they were asked, despite the ministry using powers to comply under section 70 notice of the Health Act.
Ardern said most of the level restriction requirements were "very well understood" by the population.
She did not believe people had intentionally broken isolation restrictions in relation to the latest cluster and lockdown.
"The most important principles for our Covid management have been sticking together and not turning on each other," Ardern said.
Bloomfield said the South Auckland community had shown great leadership in the Valentine's Day cluster, and those who broke isolation requirements did not do so intentionally.
The Ministry of Health said there was still a strong demand for testing with more than 11,500 tests processed yesterday. Results from wastewater testing at three Auckland sites - including Papatoetoe - on Wednesday had all come back negative.
Bloomfield said today about 6000 people connected to the latest cluster had been contacted, and many were being them followed up on a daily basis.
Ardern said they were treating more people as close contacts in this latest cluster because of the more infectious UK strain.
Bloomfield said all outstanding Papatoetoe contacts had returned a negative test.
"It is possible we may still get positive results from people who remain in isolation and are still to get a day 12 test. It's important to note that these people are in isolation," he said.
Ardern said she had spoken to French president Emmanuel Macron this morning, and the Covid-19 response came up.
"Covid has taken a toll on so many in so many ways but it will get better," Ardern said.
She indicated she would lay out - in the coming weeks - the Government's plan for the Covid response for the rest of 2021.
Cabinet met at 2pm after the Ministry of Health revealed for the fifth day in a row there were no new cases of Covid-19 in the community.
There were also no new cases in managed isolation facilities today.
The alert levels have been in place since 6am on Sunday and were scheduled to last for seven days.
Mayor's message to Aucklanders over lockdown lifting
Phil Goff says the government's decision to move Auckland to level 2 from 6am on Sunday is welcome news.
"Moving strongly and quickly to contain this outbreak has once again proved effective in stopping the spread of community transmission and I thank all the Aucklanders who have followed the rules of level 3 over the past week," Goff said.
"This cooperation has helped to ensure that the initial cases detected in the community have not spread any further, meaning that we can now step down alert levels and return to a more normal level of activity.
"This is encouraging news and with the vaccine rollout now under way there is a lot to be hopeful for. Given this is Auckland's fourth lockdown, the vaccination of Aucklanders needs to be prioritised over areas less impacted by the virus and I will continue to advocate to government for this," he said.
Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said Auckland's move to alert level 2 made sense, given the string of negative test results this week.
"We can have a good deal of confidence that this cluster is well contained," he said.
"This does not mean that there is no risk of further cases and these could still spark a larger outbreak if not detected early."
With the 14-day incubation period, there was still a risk that people who were exposed last week could develop Covid-19 - even if they tested negative this week.
"It will be important that people are vigilant around the country, avoiding school, work, or social gatherings if they develop any symptoms," Hendy said.
"This is particularly important for any Aucklanders who travel out of the region in the days after Sunday - they can help reduce the risks by continuing to behave as if they were in alert level 2.
"A large B.1.1.7 cluster would be very hard to contain, so we all need to do our bit to ensure that we catch any further cases swiftly."
Retailers are celebrating news of the alert level downgrade.
Retail NZ chief executive Greg Harford said: "Retailers throughout the country will be really pleased that Covid-19 alert levels are moving.
"Retailer confidence has slumped since mid-February, and although the sector has proven to be very resilient over the past year, each lockdown gets harder for businesses to manage. It is good news that we are now moving back down the alert levels, and retailers will be hoping that we can get back to level 1 quickly and stay there."
Ardern defends lockdown
Ardern said she felt the latest lockdown was the right choice. The person who had breached isolation had done so in previous level 3 restrictions.
"I've never wanted to see a pile-in on anyone," Ardern said of the latest isolation breaches that led to the current lockdown.
Ardern said there were ongoing reviews of whether lockdown protocols could be improved. This always occurred, she said, and had already started during this week.
Ardern says the week-long lockdown had given the best chance for any positive tests to "manifest" themselves. In her opinion it was still the "wise approach".
Bloomfield said doorkocking by police to find people was already part of isolation enforcement protocols - particularly to find people who hadn't yet been tested.
Australian vaccine issues
Ardern said it was "deeply concerning" that Australia's vaccines were being blocked from being delivered.
She expressed this to the French President in her conversation with him today.
"That came from a position of principle," Ardern said. "Now is not the time for acts of protectionism.
"New Zealand's position is there has always been uncertainty about the delivery timetable for vaccines that have been developed and produced across the globe. I don't think it's reasonable to block exports on the basis of contractual obligation, " Ardern said.
"We don't think the position Australia has been left in is fair," Ardern said. It was important New Zealand stood with Australia.
Ardern says the Government hasn't raised this because of concern over NZ's own vaccine deliveries.
Meanwhile, as the Christchurch mosque attack anniversary looms, the PM says she is engaging with other countries around the algorithms and preventative measures to uncover what it is that is driving people to the "particular content that is dangerous ... that is promoting violent and extremist activity."